The 1913 Liberty Head Nickel
The thing to remember about these is, if you find one, it's fake! There were only five of these stricken, and as of the year 2003 all five have been found and accounted for. Each of them is owned either by a museum or a private collector. Known as the "Mona Lisa" of the coin world, the last time one of these traded hands was in 2001 for a pretty sum of $1.85 million.
The 1913 Liberty Head: Lady Liberty facing left on the obverse with 13 stars in a circle around her, the reverse has the distinguished letter "V" surrounded by a wreath design. While it is quite attractive, and shows the Morgan style of artwork, it is the coin's rarity which makes it valuable.
The fakes would never have been so numerous, had not the coin been hyped throughout history. Beginning in the Great Depression, Texas millionaire B. Max Mehl launched a million-dollar advertising campaign offering top dollar to anyone who found one of the nickels. People who envisioned becoming rich off of a nickel began combing their loose change. Traffic jams were caused by streetcar conductors who stopped and examined every nickel whenever a fare got on. Mehl certainly knew how to milk the media for publicity, but never actually got his hands on a single specimen of the fabled coin. He did sell 30 printings of his coin collecting book, however.
On their way through history as the world's rarest coins, the story of the five coins was broken up in 1962, when a coin collector who had one of the nickels died in an auto accident, and the public lost track of the coin. The hunt was on for a solid forty years, until 2003 when the American Numismatic Association was planning to show the four known nickels on tour. While they were at it, they posted a new reward of a million-dollars to anyone who could produce the fifth nickel in any condition. The deceased dealer's family responded; it turned out that they had it all along, but an expert had previously mistaken it for one of the forgeries! Much to the family's surprise, six experts at the ANA conference examined the coin and found it to be the real thing. The five coins traveled the coin show circuit on public display in 2003, together for the first time.
The origins of the coins are still something of a mystery. 1913 was the year the US mint was switching from the Liberty Head design to the Indian Head series which was to run until 1938. A unknown mint employee struck five of the nickels with the old design, however, and it is not known if this was a mistake or a deliberate attempt to do a favor for a friend. That friend would seem to be Samuel W. Brown, a numismatist and an assistant curator of one of the collections in the Philadelphia Mint, in whose hands the nickels eventually turned up. Possibly to keep up appearances, Brown advertised offering to buy specimens of the Liberty Head nickel series in 1919, and in 1920 announced that he had them - conveniently seven years after the statue of limitations had expired for the crime of removing unauthorized US mint property!
The fame of the coins motivated many forgeries throughout the years. The Smithsonian alone has over fifty examples of counterfeited 1913 Liberty Head nickels in it's collection. Usually attempts to fake a 1913 were made by altering a 1912 specimen. And who knows how many unsuspecting would-be collectors have been fooled?